Recent Puritan contributor Patrick Roesle discusses Lovecraft, Cthulhu, and his story “How You Sleep at Night” from Issue XX: Winter 2013.
Like Lovecraft Even Gives a F***
“How You Sleep at Night” was something of an anomaly for me; I don’t often write horror stories. (Can we call it a horror story? We might as well.) Which is a little strange, since the first fiction author who truly fascinated me was horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. (Can we call him a horror writer? We might as well.)
He’s one of the few authors I enjoyed as a teenager and whom I find myself admiring more as I get older. What I learned from Lovecraft is that a story should be constructed not to be an elaborate anecdote about something or someone, but a delivery mechanism. Of foremost importance is the payload the mechanism is designed to deliver.
Lovecraft was ignored and misunderstood during his own lifetime. His work was lumped together with the pulp fiction of the early 20th century, even though it only bore a superficial resemblance to the other work printed in magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Today Lovecraft is famous, but I do wonder if he is much better understood than before. People typically seem less interested in his fiction than the monsters in his fiction.
Weird Tales … Nobody Does it Weirder …
Lovecraft wrote stories that included monsters. He did not write stories about monsters. Where his pulp contemporaries (and many other horror writers before and after) might be concerned, the meaning of each phrase is practically equivalent. In Lovecraft’s case, the distinction is very important.
While Cthulhu’s proliferation throughout popular culture has made Lovecraft’s name known throughout the world, it is a mistake to peg Lovecraft as an author who “wrote about monsters.” The tentacle aliens, fish-men, degenerate cultists, and their accompanying mythos were always devices—necessary (but incidental in their topographical characteristics) components of his narratives, but of far less importance than the story’s overall impact on the reader.
Lovecraft felt oppressed by the by the rote mundanity of early 20th century America, and so created a body of fiction in which malignant alien realities covertly seep into our world through the porous border between here and Outside. He philosophically recoiled at the anthropocentrism dominating the Western intellect post-Nietzsche, post-Freud, post-Darwin, post-Great War, and so created a body of fiction in which humanity is subordinate to cosmic forces it cannot fathom.
Lovecraft lived as an anachronism—a man of the 1700s living in the 1900s—and so created a body of work rife with conflicts out of time, in which sinister ancestors, buried secrets, and dead cities surface out of lost aeons as harbingers of a tenebrous future.
And thus: a life’s work replete with alien tentacle monsters.
It sounds insipid as the old tableau of a cadaverous lummox with bolts in his neck lurching towards the helpless maiden shrieking in the corner. And it would be (and so would Shelley’s original monster) if the stories existed for the monsters’ sake.
Not that Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth are symbols; they certainly are meant to be taken at face value (merely) as inconceivable cosmic horrors. But in order to strike his desired target in the reader’s imagination, Lovecraft required face-value inconceivable cosmic horrors for his tales.
Cthuloops: Now with Less Sugar!
The difference between writing a story about a monster and writing a story with a monster is the difference between building a machine such that it most effectively fulfills its function, and building a machine a certain way because you wanted to use some of the neat-looking pieces you had sitting around the garage. When you construct with a mind toward optimized results, you can usually expect a better outcome.
When writing “How You Sleep at Night,” I tried not to think too hard about the monster. I only wanted to make the “protagonist’s” experience as inexplicable, bewildering, and horrible as that of, say, watching your wedding guests get blown to pieces during an airstrike ordered on faulty intelligence. I made it nasty as I could, but that part of it was haphazard. The monster is just a monster; it’s the “protagonist” and his peculiar relationship to the reader that are important—how he reacts to it, and his response’s consistency with how he and all the rest of us go about our everyday business, knowing what we do.
Patrick Roesle is a part-time writer living outside of Philadelphia, but originally hails from Jersey. He maintains a blog called Beyond Easy (beyondeasy.blogspot.com) and a comics page called Comics Over Easy (comicsovereasy.net). In his spare time he enjoys calculus, astronomy, and noise.